Tag Archives: Quantico

Trade secrets: DQ delves into BBC’s The Secret Agent

Toby Jones turns spy in thriller The Secret Agent, adapted from Joseph Conrad’s novel by screenwriter Tony Marchant.

Tony Marchant
Tony Marchant

Is 2016 the year of the spy? From the continuing international popularity of German hit Deutschland 83, break-out US series Quantico and BBC series London Spy to Emmy nominations for John le Carré adaptation The Night Manager and Cold War thriller The Americans, there’s no shortage of covert operations on the small screen.

Fans of espionage thrillers can also look forward to Epix’s first original drama Berlin Station, CBS’s MacGyver and Fox reboot 24: Legacy all airing this autumn, as well as the return of long-running Showtime series Homeland; and, looking further ahead, forthcoming series SS-GB and The Same Sky, both due in early 2017 in the UK and Germany respectively.

“In some ways it’s a coincidence there have been quite a few spy stories this year but they are just manifestations of the bigger genre thriller,” says television writer Tony Marchant. “Toby Jones once said the great attraction of spy dramas is we all feel we’re being watched these days. That’s maybe why they’re so popular.

“They’re also about identity and concealing identities and we’re all pretty conscious of that because when we’re online, we can be different things. Maybe it’s in tune with some idea of the fluidity of identity these days, who knows!”

Another new entry to the genre is Marchant’s latest project, The Secret Agent, which is currently airing in the UK on BBC1.

 

David Dawson as Vladimir and Toby Jones as Verloc
David Dawson as Vladimir and Toby Jones as Verloc

Based on the Joseph Conrad book of the same name, the aforementioned Jones stars as Verloc, whose seedy Soho shop is a front for his role as an agent working for the Russian Embassy, spying on a group of London anarchists.

Under pressure to create a bomb outrage that the Russians hope will lead the British government to crack down on violent extremists, Verloc drags his unsuspecting family into a tragic terror plot.

It was executive producer Simon Heath who suggested Marchant adapt Conrad’s book, which by coincidence the writer had been reading only weeks earlier.

“You’re just struck by its prescience and the fact that it’s not just about geopolitical manipulations,” Marchant says of the 1907 text. “At the heart of it is a domestic tragedy, which in the end is probably the best reason for me doing it. You have to get past Conrad’s scorn, and the tone of the book is beset with irony, but the one person he does care about in the book is Winnie [Verloc’s wife, played in the series by This Is England’s Vicky McClure], so it was important to make her absolutely the bedrock of the piece. Although most people think it’s about Verloc, in the end, once you’ve seen all three episodes or read the book, you realise the person to whom the biggest tragedy befalls is Winnie.”

Winnie is played by This Is England’s Vicky McClure
Winnie is played by This Is England’s Vicky McClure

Marchant is no stranger to adaptations. His previous television credits include Great Expectations, Crime & Punishment and Canterbury Tales.

The Secret Agent was a trickier proposition, he reveals, as he faced multiple points of view, a non-chronological storyline and important events that are reported by Conrad’s characters but not seen first-hand by readers of the book.

“The general rule with adaptations is you try to find something that personally appeals, that chimes with your own preoccupations and obsessions,” Marchant explains. “That should be your first response or impulse with an adaptation, but with the others I’ve done, they have been more structurally straightforward. The difficulty with Great Expectations is the familiarity of it, Crime & Punishment was difficult but again not structurally, it’s more about [the character] Raskolnikov than anything. This was difficult because it was a modernist novel. But also it wasn’t just the structure that was tricky, it was the tone as well, which is quite scornful of most of the characters.”

Stephen Graham as Verloc’s adversary Chief Inspector Heat
Stephen Graham as Verloc’s adversary Chief Inspector Heat

Marchant initially developed the three-part series with producer World Productions’ Heath and Priscilla Parish, with an emphasis to build a plot that continually drove its characters forward through the story. This meant creating further scenes not mentioned by Conrad, such as the professor sitting on a bus with a bomb, leading to an encounter with Stephen Graham’s Inspector Heat.

“With adaptations, you have to love the book and you have to have a healthy disrespect for it at the same time,” admits Marchant, who has also written series including Garrow’s Law, Public Enemies and Leaving. “You have to tell yourself there’s something missing or that something doesn’t work. But if you do decide to embrace it as a thriller, you must make sure the characterisation and the complexity of the characterisation isn’t being compromised.

“You don’t make it a vacuous hell-for-leather thriller; you’ve got to make it full of tension and jeopardy and intrigue. The novel is called The Secret Agent so I think you’re entitled to a bit of licence in terms of the genre.”

On the Edinburgh set, which doubled for 1886 London, that licence extended to the actors, who were welcome to speak to Marchant about the script or individual lines they wanted to tweak or, in Jones’s case, omit altogether.

“That’s all fine,” the writer says. “If you’re working with really good actors, you have to respect the fact that if they’re playing it, they’ve got a great instinct for what’s right and what doesn’t convince. So I did plenty of tweaking as we were shooting it.”

The-Secret-Agent-27
Ian Hart as the Professor and Stephen Graham

Above all, it was important for Marchant and director Charles McDougall that the cast, which also includes Vicky McClure, gave completely naturalistic performances and “were not all bonnet and bodice or caught up in the fetish of period dramas.”

He continues: “If you take an adaptation like this, the great thing about this is it’s so contemporary so we’re doing it in a really modern way. That goes for the performances as well. In the end, Charles explicitly told the actors to be as natural and contemporary as you can be without it being anachronistic.”

Marchant’s writing career began in the theatre, which he credits with giving him a sense of his own voice – an influence becoming less common with the increasing scarcity of one-offs and three-parters and the popularity of genre series.

“It’s very hard for writers coming into television wherever they come from, to feel like their voice is being heard and they’re not being co-opted into writing some sort of genre show,” Marchant argues. “But I think you’ve got people like Jez Butterworth [Edge of Tomorrow] who went straight from theatre into film. Equally, you’ve got Nick Payne [The Sense of an Ending] and Mike Bartlett [Doctor Foster] who are now writing TV. That’s been quite a common trajectory for writers.

“It’s a paradox that you get bolder, bigger storytelling but that doesn’t mean the author’s voice is more clearly heard. In some ways, it can be done at the expense of authorship. If you think of TV in the past year and what’s the most authored thing you’ve seen, for me it’s Toby Jones in Marvellous [written by Peter Bowker]. That just seemed to be utterly unique, personal and authored – something that bigger dramas could never be.”

There are exceptions, however, and proof that writers can be heard, though they are found in the US – an industry Marchant adds is more advanced than British television.

“The momentum is really in big shows but if people are going to invest amounts of money into certain kinds of dramas, they want to take fewer risks and it’s more likely a show is going to be in a genre than be singular or perverse,” he says. “There are exceptions – something like Mr Robot is a great show but you’d have to say US TV has evolved a bit more in how to be big and authored. You’d say they’re in a slightly more advanced place than us.”

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Hot or not?

It’s a truism in the TV business that audiences prefer domestically produced dramas over acquired series. But for many territories, the next best thing after homegrown shows is US scripted content. That’s why, on the eve of programme market Mipcom, international TV channel buyers will be watching US schedules closely.

Right now is an important juncture in the year because US broadcast and cable networks have just launched their latest batch of new shows. While some international networks have already acquired these series (basing their decisions on scripts or pilots), many prefer to wait and see how well shows rate before committing their cash.

From this perspective, Mipcom comes at the perfect time, providing a great opportunity for buyers and sellers to discuss a show’s performance face to face in Cannes.

In this week’s column, we take a look at some of the new drama series that have just hit the US market, providing a few pointers as to how they are shaping up during their debut seasons. The shows are listed according to how well they have started out.

blindspotBlindspot
NBC’s Blindspot is one of the top performers among this year’s new US dramas. Last week, we reported that its first episode attracted 10.6 million viewers and a 3.1 rating among 18-49s. Since then, delayed viewing has pushed the show’s total viewership up to 15.9 million (Live+3 ratings). The show, which centres on a tattooed woman found in a duffel bag in Times Square, has been given the go-ahead by NBC to deliver nine more scripts — an encouraging sign. Buyers that pick up this series can be confident it will come back for a second season. The show is distributed by Warner Brothers International Distribution, which has already licensed it to TVNZ New Zealand, CTV Canada and Sky Living in the UK.

quantico-abcQuantico
We took a close look at ABC’s Quantico in this week’s Writers Room. The story of a group of FBI trainees attempting to foil a terrorist plot attracted 7.1 million viewers and a 1.9 rating among adults aged 18-49 in its Sunday 22.00 slot. This is a good opening, and the reviews have also been generally positive. Distributed by Disney, the show has already been sold to CTV Canada and UKTV in the UK. Quantico doesn’t look as much like a dead cert as Blindspot to return, but it is better positioned than most shows to get a renewal.

Brian-Finch-in-Limitless-seriesLimitless
A spin-off from the Bradley Cooper-starring movie of the same name, Limitless is about a man who takes a super drug that allows him to use 100% of his brain’s potential. He then uses his newfound ability to work with the FBI. Airing on CBS, Limitless was one of the strongest performers among the new shows, attracting 9.8 million viewers for its first episode. The show then attracted 9.6 million for its second episode, which is a pretty good audience retention level. Also positive is that the show stayed strong among the 18-49 demo (1.9 rating). Limitless stands a pretty good chance of renewal, though it is too early to call. It is distributed internationally by CBS Studios International, which has already licensed the show to the likes of Fox TV in Sweden and RTL CBS Entertainment – a pan-regional pay TV channel in Asia.

MrRobotMr Robot
USA Network was so pleased with the first episode of this hacking drama that it immediately ordered a second season. With the first run now over, Mr Robot seems to have found a cult audience and a decent level of critical acclaim (an IMDb rating of 9.0 makes it one of the best-received of this year’s new shows). One buyer impressed by the series is Amazon, which swooped in and secured streaming rights to the first season. However, Amazon is not yet in many territories, so there is still plenty of scope for international networks to buy Mr Robot. It would probably suit a pay TV or subscription VoD platform – though an edgy terrestrial channel might also find a post-22.00 slot for it.

UnREALUnREAL
UnREAL aired on Lifetime this summer. Set against the backdrop of a fictional dating show, it focuses on flawed heroine Rachel Goldberg (Shiri Appleby), a young producer whose sole job is to manipulate relationships between contestants to get the outrageous footage demanded by her executive producer, Quinn King (Constance Zimmer). UnREAL didn’t debut very strongly but Lifetime’s decision to stream a number of episodes online gave the show a boost. The series finished its run as Lifetime’s most successful ever among younger viewers (part of the channel’s plan) and has already secured a second season. The show is distributed by A+E Studios International, which is bringing Appleby and Zimmer to Mipcom. It airs on Lifetime in the UK and has been licensed to streaming services such as Stan (Australia) and Lightbox (New Zealand). Some networks will be put off by the fact it parodies the TV entertainment business, but others will embrace its slick humour.

heroesrebornHeroes Reborn
This revival of the Heroes franchise did moderately well on its return. Having scored a 2.0 rating among 18-49s on its opening night, time-shifted viewing took it up to a 3.1 rating (Live+3). Nielsen’s figures have Heroes Reborn ranking as the fourth best launch out of 11 on the big four US networks last week. A 7.9 rating on IMDb is not spectacular, but it’s okay to start with. The show was simulcast in Canada on Global and started airing on Seven Network Australia on September 30. The original series is currently on Netflix.

fearwalkingdeadFear The Walking Dead
You can understand the editorial and commercial reasons behind AMC’s decision to extend the world of The Walking Dead, but Fear The Walking Dead (FTWD) is not quite living up to the hype.  After a massive 10.1 million audience for episode one, it has since slumped significantly. The audience for episodes four and five was around the 6.5 million mark, which is good compared with other shows but not compared with its parent show. Season five of The Walking Dead averaged around 14.8 million. An IMDb rating of 7.8 suggests that the audience hasn’t really bought into FTWD – though there is time for that to change because AMC has already committed to a second season. Internationally, the show is airing on AMC Global where that channel is available (including territories in Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East). In Australia it is on FX. Hulu has picked up US streaming rights while Amazon streams FTWD in Germany and Austria. One interesting development is that AMC has also created a 16-part web series, Fear the Walking Dead: Flight 462, for its website (amc.com). One of the characters in the web series will be introduced in FTWD’s second season, which is a pretty cool piece of transmedia storytelling.

scream-queensScream Queens
There was a lot of prelaunch hype around Fox’s Scream Queens, an anthology comedy-horror series from Ryan Murphy (Glee) that makes heavy use of guest appearances by big stars (such as singer Ariana Grande). But the show hasn’t got off to a particularly strong start. Episodes one and two were shown as a two-hour special and attracted a modest 4.04 million viewers (1.7 rating among 18-49s). There was some improvement once time-shifted viewing for episode one was included, but the second episode’s audience of 3.76 million suggests Scream Queens hasn’t really managed to grip America’s imagination. Review site Rotten Tomatoes sums up the show: “Too tasteless for mainstream viewers and too silly for horror enthusiasts, Scream Queens fails to satisfy.” The series is distributed by Twentieth Century Fox Television Distribution, which has so far sold it to E4 in the UK, which is probably the right kind of home for it. Murphy’s involvement makes renewal a possibility, but Fox will want to see an upturn in the ratings to justify a new run.

MuppetsThe Muppets
A week ago, we would have been lauding the performance of the latest Muppets revamp. But a disastrous ratings decline for episode two changes the picture somewhat. For episode one on ABC, The Muppets attracted nine million viewers. But for episode two the show was down 35% to 5.8 million. There was also a drop-off in 18-49 viewers. The decline is so significant that we’re going to need a few weeks to see where the show settles down. Nevertheless, The Muppets has a sufficiently strong following globally that international sales are bound to follow for Disney. Early buyers of the show include Sky1 in the UK.

ThePlayerThe Player
The Player, another new drama from NBC, got off to a slow start. The main problem seems to be an over-complicated premise, which involves a secret amoral organisation that bets on crimes before they are committed. The first episode attracted a modest 1.2 rating among 18-49s on its first night and a total viewership of 4.68 million (rising to seven million after three days). Nevertheless, Sony Pictures Television (SPT), which distributes The Player internationally, has been very quick to secure some deals for the show. Broadcasters that have signed up include TF1 France, RTL Germany, AXN Spain, Seven Australia, D-Smart Turkey and OSN in the Middle East. All told, SPT has sold the show to broadcasters operating in 105 territories (some deals are pan-regional). Sales have probably been helped by the fact that the The Player features Wesley Snipes, but the chances of a renewal already look slim.

1443172256_minority-report-tv-show-meagan-good-stark-sandsMinority Report
A spin-off from the Tom Cruise movie of the same name, Minority Report hasn’t started very well. Episode one attracted an underwhelming 3.1 million viewers (1.1 rating among 18-49s). Fox fought a rearguard action by pointing to episode one’s increase as a result of time-shifted viewing. But episode two’s audience of 2.56 million (0.9 rating among 18-49s) shows a downward trend that is not encouraging. With IMDb giving the show a low 6.1 rating, it will be a major surprise if Minority Report makes it to season two. That will clearly impact on the distribution strategy for the series.

Finally, a brief mention for the BBC in the UK, which has been running a superb series of feature-length dramas based on classic British literary works. While the dramas in questions didn’t always rate highly, they were excellently produced and provided a great showcase for why public service broadcasting matters.

The top-rating production was An Inspector Calls (5.8 million), which has a particularly high profile in the UK. Next came Lady Chatterley’s Lover (4.9 million), then Cider with Rosie (3.9 million) and finally The Go-Between (2.6 million). The latter, based on a novel by LP Hartley, is the least well known of the four works, so its lower ratings aren’t too much of a surprise. But it was a well-made drama. Overall, these four films were a job well done by the BBC.

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Familiar and fresh

Quantico has earned praise for its diverse cast
Quantico has earned praise for the diversity of its lead characters

A lot of scripted TV has a derivative feel about it – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When people sit down to watch something, they generally want to know roughly what they are going to get, in the same way they gravitate towards the same brands and restaurants.

That’s why, even in this ‘golden age’ age of risk-taking drama, so many shows are based on pre-existing properties or work within well-understood genres or situations (cop, hospital, romance, period and so on).

But the audience’s preference for the familiar only goes so far. Once viewers are within a story world, they expect to be surprised and delighted. If a drama turns out to be a poor copy of a previous show then they will desert in their droves. This explains why so many scripted series fall off a cliff between episodes one and two – because they have been rumbled.

One writer who seems pretty adept at balancing the familiar with the fresh is Josh Safran. After working on The CW’s hit series Gossip Girl and NBC’s short-lived Smash, he has now achieved a strong start with Quantico, a fast-paced thriller that debuted on September 27 on ABC in the US.

Airing in a 22.00 slot, the show attracted 7.1 million viewers and a 1.9 rating among adults aged 18-49. This audience was 36% up on its lead-in and well ahead of the CSI finale on CBS. In addition, it was much higher than Revenge’s performance in the same slot last year. In fact, ABC says the show is the strongest ‘regular programming’ performer in this slot since May 2012 (i.e. not a special event such as a live sports match).

Quantico writer Josh Safran
Quantico writer Josh Safran

Quantico is about a group of young trainees learning to become FBI agents. It turns out that one of them is a terrorist planning a major attack – but we don’t know who.

So far, so familiar. In the run up to the show’s launch, it was described as “a garden variety whodunnit” and a cross between Homeland and a Shonda Rhimes drama.

What helps Safran’s show stand out from the crowd, however, is a clear decision to avoid obvious character stereotypes. The trainees, for example, are ethnically diverse, with a central role handed to Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, who plays Alex Parrish. There is also a leading position for black actress Aunjanue Ellis, who acts as mentor to the new recruits.

Forbes Magazine was especially impressed by the show’s start, pointing out numerous examples of how the female characters assert their independence and demonstrate their capabilities. “The best and most refreshing parts of this programme are the strong females leads,” it said. “Quantico highlights the fact that female leads can have more to their plotlines than love, pregnancy or rape. And it shows that when better roles are written for women, the programme benefits as well.”

It’s early days, of course, and some of Quantico’s reviewers were a bit more skeptical. But as long as the show can maintain momentum with its terrorist whodunnit plot, it will probably come out as one of this year’s top-performing new series – which would be good news for international broadcaster such as CTV Canada and UKTV that have already acquired it.

The Enfield Haunting is heading for A&E Network
The Enfield Haunting, starring Timothy Spall (centre), is set to air on A&E Network

As for Safran, he is also working on an updated version of the Fame, which first appeared as a 1980 movie before becoming a hit TV series and then being revived as a movie again in 2009. Destined for Lifetime in the US, the new Fame is being written and executive produced by Safran for MGM TV. Other exec producers include Nigel Lythgoe, Chad Gutstein and Charles Segars.

On paper, its looks like a dead cert hit (for the reasons stated at the start of this column). But it will actually be quite a challenge for Safran. Just how do you revive such a show in a world that has been exposed to Glee, wall-to-wall TV talent shows and YouTube? This is a situation where the ability to blend the familiar with the fresh will prove decisive.

Another writer entitled to feel pleased with himself this week is London-based Joshua St Johnston, whose three-part miniseries The Enfield Haunting is to air on A&E Network in the US from October 9, following its acquisition from eOne.

Adapted from Guy Lyon Playfair’s book This House is Haunted, The Enfield Haunting is a dramatisation of the terrifying real-life events that took place in a London home during 1977. Starring Timothy Spall, Matthew Macfadyen and Juliet Stevenson, it first aired to critical acclaim on Sky Living in the UK.

A&E will be hoping for a stronger performance from The Enfield Haunting than fellow supernatural show The Returned (pictured)
A&E will be hoping for a stronger performance from The Enfield Haunting than it achieved with fellow supernatural show The Returned (pictured)

St Johnston’s first TV writing credit came way back in 1996, when he penned an episode of UK doctor drama Peak Practice. After a period where he focused more on producing, St Johnston wrote a couple of TV movies in the middle of the last decade, including the Ray Winstone-starring Sweeney Todd. After writing a short film for the Cultural Olympiad in 2012, he scripted the poorly reviewed musical film Walking on Sunshine.

However, with Eleven Film-produced The Enfield Haunting he certainly seems to have found his métier.

Represented by Harriet Pennington Leigh at Troika Talent, St Johnston is now developing new TV series with Clerkenwell Films and Eleven Film and working on a movie with Christopher Sweeney entitled Good Boy, Hung. He is also reported to be working on a TV series with Artists Studio called Deviant. As a footnote, it’s interesting to see A&E going back into the paranormal realm so soon after its failure with The Returned – it’s obviously a genre in which it sees plenty of mileage.

Other writers who can look forward to a period of full employment include Graham Roland, who is attached to a new Paramount TV production based on author Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character. The show, which has Carlton Cuse (Lost) attached as showrunner, is heading to Amazon, according to Deadline.

Stephen Kronish
Stephen Kronish

Roland’s major credits to date include Prison Break, Lost and the US version of The Returned, the latter two of which he worked on with Cuse. He was also involved in Fox’s sci-fi/crime drama Almost Human, which only lasted for one season in 2014 before cancellation.

Elsewhere, showrunner Stephen Kronish is working with Televisa US on its upcoming remake of Gran Hotel. An industry veteran whose credits stretch all the way back to Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1985, Kronish has had some big hits in the last decade with 24 and The Kennedys. He has also recently finished writing the TV movie Manson’s Lost Girls and the moderately well-received Secret Life of Marilyn Monroe.

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